Looking Up

March 24, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

I have photographed one model of helicopter over the years that few people have seen, far fewer have piloted, and only a tiny number have flown on*. I speak of the absolutely unique K-MAX from Kaman. It looks different from any other helicopter**, and it acts different, differences that make it ideal for what it is designed to do: lift things.

Starting in 2005, those projects have taken me from Alaska to Puerto Rico, with many stops in between. Much of that photography has been from the ground, which presents challenges for any photographer charged with supporting the communications/marketing/etc. needs of their client. But that's my job, so here are some tips for making good images when the subject is in the sky and you ain't.

So Far Away…

I'll use photos from a recent multi-day shoot in Las Vegas, starting with a common challenge you face when photographing a helicopter from the ground: the aircraft is not near you.

So much could be better about this photo, not just that the aircraft is small, but also the bright sky leads to the aircraft being nearly a silhouette, devoid of color and surface detail, and with nothing but blank sky, the vignetting in the corners (a characteristic of most lenses, even pro-level ones like this, depending on the aperture setting) is obvious and unattractive. Not visible, because I went to the trouble of removing them, are the dust specks made noticeable by this being such an undetailed field of color.

Of course, I chose that image for demonstration purposes, and though I took the shot, and it might find usefulness if a designer wanted what it has (the vignetting can be repaired in the computer), the issues of the aircraft being far from the photographer and seen against a plain sky are common challenges when shooting aircraft at work.

Still, why make the shot at all?

Because that was the first image I made as the aircraft was arriving to its work site from a local airport. When it appeared in the sky, I got sighted on it, auto-focused the lens, and 5 seconds later made the following image.

Basically, that first image was just prepping for what might happen next which, in this case, was the K-MAX flying past the Wynn Encore hotel and casino in Las Vegas. I wasn't sure of the path it would take, that being dictated by air traffic control at McCarran International Airport, so I had to be vigilant for opportunities as it approached, and took advantage of this one.

Less than a minute later, the aircraft had half-circled around its landing zone and, as it approached, I framed it thus:

So, one tip for a far-away aircraft is to keep your eyes open to compositions that place it in its surroundings. Include the buildings or scenery or nearby celestial objects that give a sense of the environment. That tip is, of course, in addition to having and properly using a long focal length lens.

The In-Between Place

So far, I've not shown the aircraft doing what it does — lifting things — which it does on a long line hanging from its unique hook-on-a-trolley system. The challenge is making eye-catching photography of the aircraft when it might occupy only a small area of the image, as when you are some distance from the action. That's a challenge photographing any aircraft carrying a load on a line, and since that is the K-MAX's raison d'être, you'll get a lot of practice meeting that challenge.

This next one is a nice photo of the aircraft. A head-on shot with rim lighting and a formal composition: the aircraft laterally centered in the frame and the cargo line neatly splitting the image in two, leading right down to the, um, where's the load? The load is not even visible, yet see how small the aircraft has already become?

This next image shows the whole thing: aircraft, line, and load. Yet, something else is missing…

Missing, again, is the environment. We see nothing but aircraft with load, located anywhere in the world because it shows nothing but (vignetted!) sky. Below? A more complete story, with the rooftop and the ground crews muscling the load into place. The aircraft isn't doing much more in this image than it was above, hauling around a big something-or-other, but the image is doing so much more. (That something-or-other is one of 80+ exhaust fans, some in excess of 5,000 pounds, the K-MAX picked up and placed in one day.)

If the photographer can work near where the aircraft is working, other opportunities present themselves. One advantage of being closer to the load is, the line will appear visually shorter. That means the aircraft can appear larger. Of course, nothing comes for free, as yet other challenges can arise. One is demonstrated in this next image.

To capture the aircraft and its load, when working near the aircraft, a wide-angle lens is required, though the "leaning" buildings are the result of my necessarily pointing the camera up, leaving the horizon low in the frame. That geometric convergence might be attractive or distracting, depending on the application. If leaning buildings are acceptable, shoot away.

If not, a yet wider-angle lens, which would still need to be shot from just a bit farther away to capture all the action, might be the solution. That approach, however, further requires pointing the camera level at the horizon, which means also filling half the image with the whatever is in the foreground. Another solution could be the use of a lens capable of shifting its elements, allowing the "view" to be pointed up while keeping the camera aimed at the horizon. I have such a lens, but for a dynamic situation such as this, it would prove unwieldy — it is best suited to static situations, often when architecture is truly the subject.

A third, possible, solution that might come to mind is correcting the distortion in post-processing. That approach has merit in many instances, but is not a panacea. Just look at the following version of the preceding image, which "corrected" the leaning buildings with specialized software. I judge this cure to be worse than the disease; the buildings look natural but the aircraft is wildly distorted and the usable width of the image has narrowed considerably.

When you start getting this close, you also, typically, need to wear personal protective gear for vision and hearing, plus a hard hat. The vision thing might mean safety glasses, which can interfere with looking through the viewfinder; The hearing thing can be awkward, depending on how that is handled and, of course, can interfere with communications for coordination and safety; The hard hat can interfere with holding the camera up to your face, especially for shooting vertically oriented images like these. On this last point, I usually re-arrange the suspension system in my hard hat to put the bill of the hat at the back. That helps.

(Me? I have a forestry hard hat, which has a smaller bill and is fitted with integrated hearing protection, plus true safety glasses in my prescription. What I didn't know in advance was, I would need to wear boots on this job site. And wouldn't you know it? I had pulled my boots from my luggage in preparation for the trip. Why would I need boots in Las Vegas? So, a trip to the local department store and, presto! I now own two pairs of boots!)

Harking back to staying alert to opportunities for interesting photography, I noticed the shadow of the aircraft moving about the roof, so I ran to the shadow and made the following:

The pilot of the K-MAX was maneuvering the aircraft, aligning the load to the allotted locations on the roof, which had me scurrying around, trying to keep the sun behind the aircraft without my tripping over a rooftop protrusion. Sometimes I saw a silhouetted helicopter, and sometimes I got an eyeball full of sunshine. Still, the image was so stunning I repeated this composition on a couple of his placements, and shot at least one while ignoring the load!

Giants in the Sky

Lastly, a bit about image-making from very near the action. Photographically, the opportunities from nearly or precisely below the helicopter can be many, with concomitant, special, challenges.

Looks pretty good, right? Bold, frame-filling, with angular elements and composition adding energy to the image? If we zoom in, especially for smartphone viewers, the defects become (pardon the pun?) clear.

Blurriness a'poppin'! And if you notice how the blurry details are short lines (highlights on rivets are a good place to look), you'll understand this is motion blur. Is this defective image the result of poor camera technique? Improper control settings? Yes, I'll admit to some technique failing here, brought on by totally appropriate control settings.

You see, what might seem an obvious solution to motion blur is not the solution one might hope for: increasing the shutter speed should sharpen everything right up, right? In a sense, yes. But note the main rotor blades. If a shutter speed is chosen fast enough to assure zero motion blur in the fuselage, those rotor blades end up looking blur-less also, and that is not good for a helicopter. (Click here to see my article on that subject explicitly.)

And what if the motion blur is not entirely the result of bad camera handling? If you look at the blur apparent in the upper left corner, it appears less egregious than in the lower right corner. That's because the aircraft is turning to its left, thus twisting in the frame. It's one thing to accurately pan a camera with a moving subject, but this subject is moving not only laterally, but also reorienting itself rotationally.

Another challenge when working close to a working helicopter is rotor downwash, which can not only rock you and your camera about — not good — but can potentially knock you over, so be careful.

And then there's the issue of pointing your camera skyward, as required for the above shot, and trying to keep it steady, downwash or no. Keep in mind, when pointing a camera somewhat level to the ground, your arms and torso can flex to steady your shot. When pointing up, craning your neck and putting your eye to the viewfinder, your body is less equipped to counter the up-and-down motions.

Can it be done, getting a sharp shot with all of the above working against you? Of course. (Why else would I pose the question?) This next image was made less than one second after the preceding one.

Further, when an aircraft is working overhead, the distance is probably not great — a hundred feet? Two hundred? This means their motion, as an angle compared to your static position, is conversely greater. For instance, imagine tracking the motion of a helicopter moving at 30 knots, 300 horizontal feet away, over there, above that electrical tower. That's fairly easy to track, right? Now put the aircraft over your head, a mere 150 feet away, doing 30 knots. You've craned your neck, stretched your arms up to control the camera and lens, are wearing safety glasses and are being buffeted by downwash. Now, track and shoot! Hurry, because things are changing fast.

The difference between the blurry version, above, and the sharp one? Sometimes it's a matter of just shoot, shoot, shoot because you know some will be blurry. Or sometimes you sense your camera or the subject moved during an exposure and you shoot again. You seldom have time to stop and "chimp"*** during a dynamic shooting situation, so pressing the shutter release many times can be your best insurance for coming back with sharp images.

Here is another, good, example of shooting up at a working helicopter. Blurry blades, sharp aircraft, and a load slung in view. (Most of the fans they placed were the large gray cylinders, but a few were these square boxy things.)

Here, There, and Everywhere

There were so many images to choose from in putting together this article. So many. And in those images are so many opportunities to teach and learn. But rather than blather on about what I did, and what you could do, should do, here are a few more images. Look at what I included in the frame. See where the light was coming from. Check out the compositions. In other words, learn what you can from them, and happy shooting! (And don't forget the footnotes — *** — following these images.)





* This operator, ROTAK Helicopter Services, has at least one K-MAX that can be outfitted with an external chair. It's just a tubular metal frame with some flat metal panels for a seat bottom and a seat back which, when installed, has the rider with their back against the fuselage, just forward of the main landing gear beam. Your author is one of the tiny number of people who have flown on that seat. Twice. In Puerto Rico. Images from that project appeared in ROTOR magazine.

** During World War II the German designer Anton Flettner developed helicopters for the German armed forces that featured twin, counter-rotating main rotors similar to what the K-MAX sports. Is it a coincidence the K-MAX has them? Industrial theft? Neither. After the war, Flettner emigrated to the U.S. and eventually became chief designer at Kaman Aircraft.

*** Chimping is the practice of immediately reviewing the images just collected, holding your camera against your chest with the screen pointing up, and your head tilted down; apparently something about this posture reminded someone of a chimpanzee, so, "chimp" it became.


A big thank-you to ROTAK Helicopter Services for inviting me to capture their people and machines in action.


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